Thursday, July 21, 2016

2016 CITI OPEN DAY 6: THE YANKS ARE COMING


Maybe it was the chronological proximity to the Olympic games, or the Davis Cup, or the Rogers Cup.  For whatever reason, the main draw of the 2016 Citi Open played host to 17 Americans.  As young as 18, as old as 31, the door seemed to be open to anyone with a navy blue passport and a forehand.  At just a hawk-eye's margin under 1/3rd of the field, it seems the only American tennis players who didn't appear for DC's premiere annual international sporting event, were the 10 names that encircle the stadium court as previous champions.  Which brings me to the subject of the Day 6 recap: there remains (for the 9th year running) a curious gap in the long tradition of American success at this event, which collides in history with the last American to win a major - one Andrew Stephen Roddick. Given the excitement surrounding the many supplicants who would gape to be his heir, both as the titlist here, and the next American world champion (with a "Y" chromosome), it begs a brief history of those yankee doodle dandies who've brought the bacon home from DC.

Now, if Donald Dell, John Harris and Steve Potts had had their way, I'm quite certain that the American they would have chosen to win the inaugural event in the nation's capital, would have been the man who's vision it was to do more than put the same complexioned asses in the seats over and over again.  After all, who but Arthur Ashe could have elicited the integrated audience that the socially conscious men behind the curtain had hoped for, and indeed achieved, in the first (and last) 5-set final in the history of the tournament in 1969.  On that day, everyone in the audience had hoped for a victory from the man born and raised 90 miles away in that other US capital (of the Confederate States of America).  His effort was herculean, albeit erratic, losing the first two advantage sets, with the second lasting 16 games.  And although he found his feet in the 3rd and penultimate sets, try as he and everyone watching did, his loosed-limbed, left handed Brazilian opponent on the day, Thomas Koch, simply would not yield the right of way.

A year later, an American champion was guaranteed, as Ashe returned to compete for the final against Cliff Richey, a bare-knuckled brawler born of Texas tennis royalty.  His sister Nancy Richey is an ITHOF inductee who won the Australian Championships in 1967, and the first French Open in 1968, to go with 3 other majors in doubles.  Ashe would gain some measure of revenge when it counted, when he beat Richey two years later in a US Open semi-final...but on that day, the stars at night shone bright for the big heart from Texas.  

The Aussies took over the next couple of years, when Rosewall and Roche (in succession) disposed of the same Marty Riessen, denying the Illinois native his place on the ring of champions at the William H. Fitzgerald Tennis Center.  So it wasn't until 1973 that Ashe finally fulfilled the promise envisioned 5 years earlier and won the title to the delight of the partisan audience.  In a replay of the first US Open final (also 5 years earlier) Ashe defeated the wily, but altogether over-matched, dutchman Tom Okker, who had made a(n almost forgotten) kind of history himself by being the first Jewish tennis player to make a major final in the Open era.  In 1974 another American son of Abraham, Harold Solomon, ascended to the top row of the annals of Citi Open history, by beating none other than 3-time champion Guillermo Vilas, who wouldn't lose another final here until 1981.

In the interim, Vilas alternated titles with Americans for 6 years (missing the 7th by losing to his professional nemesis, and elegant compatriot, Jose Luis Clerc.  Jimmy Connors, by then the most imposing player in the world, both technically and in terms of his influence on the game, took the bicentennial year title in 1976, then won a second two years later against Eddie Dibbs.  In a repeat of their memorable, but lightly attended consolation (3rd place) match in 1971, Connors still had the better of his less illustrious compatriot.  Had he entered the tournament in 1980, it’s not altogether certain that he would have won it.  Though Connors record on clay was exemplary by the standards of mere mortals, for those whose faces grace the Mount Rush(the net)more of tennis, clay was by far his worst surface managing only one major title on the slippery stuff, and that in the familiar surroundings of the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills - also in 1976 (over Bjorn Borg, no less, but I digress). 

The best American on clay in 1980 was Brian Gottfried, who was enjoying one of the most successful years of his career, and nobody had worked harder to earn his place in Citi Open Valhalla than him.  Gottfried was the kind of player who would (and in fact did) only take one day off from practice...the day he got married.  That year, Gottfried earned his title by holding at bay the man most Argentine tennis fans pitted against their beloved Vilas, as the fairest fuzz whacking gaucho of them all.  It would be his one and only title in Washington DC.

Although a couple of Bollitieri Academy graduates (Jimmy Arias in 1982 and 1983, Aaron Krickstein in 1984) tried their best, the title escaped American possession until Jimmy Connors, in a prodigal return, killed two bald eagles with one stone, ending his own personal 4-year title drought, and one twice that long for Americans at the Citi Open, with a victory over the talented and languid, pre-Roland Garros conquering Ecuadoran Andres Gomez.  Connors initiated an American revival, resulting in titles for the Red, White and Blue in 9 of the next 12 years.  This sequence would include all 5 of Agassi’s titles (1990, 1991, 1995, 1998, 1999), both of Michael Chang’s (1996, 1997) and Tim Mayotte's lone title in 1989, which would have been American either way because his opponent that year was Brad Gilbert.

With so many Americans enjoying their 15 minutes at the DC troth, one could have been forgiven for assuming that the trend would continue ad infinitum.  The trend was eventually proven illusory, but Roddick surprised everyone with a victory over Sjeng Shalken in 2001 for his maiden title here (and the third of his rookie year) followed by an even bigger surprise the next year when James Blake won his one and only title, over Paradorn Shrichipan, having precociously usurped Andre the Giant in the semi-final.  Unfortunately Blake’s interlude as the American standard bearer was short lived, both in the grand scheme of things and at this tournament.  Roddick would match his one-time American coach Jimmy Connors with 3 titles, his third (and last) would also spell the latest of an amazing tally of 19 titles in 45 years...four better than a third, and four shy of half. 

So who then, among the band of brothers still in the field is most likely to make their maiden title in DC #20 for the US of A?  

Well, there is the record holder for profligacy, 3-times bridesmaid John Isner, who’s professional breakthrough came at this very tournament, when Roddick last carried the flag.  That year, Tommy Haas joked that there ought to be a height limit on tennis players, after falling to the long-limbed tarheel in a 3rd set tie-break.  Last year Isner fell to the fastest hands in the (far) east, in a gripping final against Kei Nishikori.  This year, a well earned victory over Marcos Baghdatis, a natural talent who counts his return of serve as one of his weapons, is a good sign:  that's because it seems to be the only kind of a player with a snowball's chance on a summer afternoon in DC, of beating him on that lightning quick Stadium Court.  James Duckworth, didn't benefit from any hangover from Isner's Davis Cup disappointment.  It could turn out to be a delayed reaction, and he will need all his reserves of fortitude to overcome his opponent in the quarterfinal.

Speaking of which, could Steve Johnson be the most likely to end the American drought in DC?  Already a winner at Nottingham this year, his respectable 4th round performance against Roger Federer at Wimbledon, may signal a coming of age for him.  He is (as is to be expected) older than players with similar experience on the ATP tour, but this is the first year Johnson's game is a match for his commitment to give every last drop of effort in him to his own cause.  He (very) effectively blunted the potency of Ryan Harrison's serve with a series of clever and effective chip returns to the deep recesses of the court.  

This is precisely the location of Nishikori's most effective returns last year against Isner, and I have a feeling that if he's feeling it at all in the legs, he will have neither the energy, nor the inclination to make the court smaller by serving and volleying - the only viable reply to Johnson's rather obvious, but even more effective, solution.  And as hard as it is to imagine it, his serve may be even more effective this year than last, and Isner struggled to find it then. So, this could be the Trojan man's moment, and if he can get past Isner, there aren't too many players left in the field with all tools necessary to push him back down the walls of Troy.

Then there's Sam Querey:  another quiet American who (to this day, despite all his megaton serving contemporaries) still holds the ATP record for the most consecutive aces in a single match (10 against James Blake in 2007).  Surprising some with a magnificent effort to overcome 2012 Champion Alexander Dolgopolov tonight, Querrey showed that, more than an anomaly in his summer, his victory over Djokovic at Wimbledon foretells a resurgence in his career that could lead to him winning a title here that he has sought since 2009.  To do this, he will need all the free points he can get from his serve against a man who has been putting on a serving exhibition here himself:  the flash, flamboyant Frenchman Gael Monfils, who has hit 22 aces in 2 matches.  If Monfils is taking himself seriously, he has the pedigree to douse the fire lit in Querrey.  But if that Gallic Shrug, combined with the circus shots he sometimes tries, makes another appearance, I like the chances of (the) Sam(urai) Querrey.

Finally there's Jack Sock, who, in addition to hitting a tennis ball harder than anyone ever has, is apparently running for president.  I have always been of the opinion that if you want to know who has a shot to be the best player in the world, look for the guy that's doing something that nobody else can:  Alexander (the Great) Zverev is hitting his groundstrokes at an average speed of 81 mph - 6 mph faster than anyone else at the Citi Open.  Nick Kyrgios displays Federer-ish combinations of accuracy, variety and disguise on his serve.  And Jack Sock is hitting his forehand at as much as 6300 rpm...Rafael Nadal, the former King of Spain, maxes out at 5800 (with all due respect to Federer's slice backhand that reaches 7200 rpm...but that's a very different kettle of fish).

So this is a tool in Sock's sock that is exclusive to him - it's his Excalibur, his Aegis, the ring of which he is the Lord...and boy did he put it to good use today.  Like a game of cat and mouse played by men with racquets, he used his rpm to consistently force Daniel Evans into a series of very limited choices, most of which ended with him lancing the boil of Evans' frustration with a screaming forehand winner.  The minute Evans left a shot not quite far enough into Sock's backhand corner to...well, force him to hit a backhand, Sock began ripping his forehand, really heavily and at an acute angle, into Evans' backhand.  

It was neither deep nor short, and if Evans tried to step in and come over it, the ball would jump up into his chest and he would invariably framed it.  If he moved back, the court would open like a sliced grapefruit, beckoning Sock to exploit the now gaping wound that was Evans' forehand corner.  And if Evans tried to slice it, he could get away with it a couple of times, maybe even three, but eventually the temptation to exit from that constrictive tango was too much.  He couldn't resist trying to go up the line, either an error, or a short ball would ensue, and Sock would simply put him out of his misery or start the sequence again.

It was almost sadistic:  a lesson in humility that Mr. S(p)ock can impose on his opponents like the Kobyashi Maru.  Time and again, Evans made a choice, and time again it ended in a fatal exercise in total futility.  Strangely, although Evans is not the fittest fiddle in the orchestra, he seemed to grow in efficacy as the match wore on, after very nearly losing the first set in a 20 minute bagel.  But Sock's superior movement, serve and that blood-thirsty sword of Damocles (masquerading as a forehand) he wields eventually dropped right on top of Evans' head.

I have the feeling that of all the players that US has produced in the last 10 years, Sock's game is the most likely to achieve a major title.  At the height of his powers, nobody has an answer to what he can do, which is why it is such a shame that he so rarely reaches that apex.  The likelihood of doing so over a fortnight, which would be required to drink of the immortal ambrosia reserved for his major winning American predecessors, is for the moment, remote.  But ask me if he can do it over the next 3 days, and I would argue that is hardly a bridge, over the Potomac, too far.

So, if I had to place a bet on who wins the Citi Open, I would drop a 10 euro note on Sasha "Fierce" Zverev.  But if the currency must be green, with dead presidents (perhaps poetically, given that we're 6 miles from the National Mall) I'd place it on John "the Hitman" Isner.  If (and it's a pretty big if) he can get past the Trojan dark horse, he is a better player with a better serve than Karlovic, who I think will take the racquet right out of Sock's hand in their quarterfinal, rendering his wizardry entirely moot.  Querrey is unlikely to get past Monfils, and if he does, his reward would be a date with Zverev in the semi-final, and I don't see him bringing that Chincoteague pony to heel any time soon.  

The one and only player that can take the racquet out of Zverev's hand is Isner - let's just hope he brings it in what would be his 4th final.  He already holds the record for runner-ups at the Citi Open, and I'm quite certain he doesn't want to pad it.
Post a Comment